Pitt, CMU Try to Buck Sliding Trend of Women Studying Computer Science

Article excerpt

Her presentation to teenage girls in Point Breeze covered the coolness of computer science.

"It encompasses so many things," Heather Friedberg, 19, a sophomore computer science major at the University of Pittsburgh told them. "You can integrate it into everything."

Cars, special effects in movies, cell phones -- computer science improved all.

Yet at the end of her talk, Friedberg said, one girl asked her: "Are you sure this is what you really want to do with your life?"

Thousands more girls and women today say no to that question than in 1985, National Science Foundation data show. Women received 36.4 percent of computer science bachelor's degrees that year. By 2005, women accounted for 22.2 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science.

"Computer science is the only science where the percentage of women earning undergraduate degrees has dropped significantly since the early '80s," said Jan Cuny, 57, director of the foundation's Broadening Participation in Computing program, which spends about $14 million a year to attract women and minorities to computer science.

Why women turn away from the field baffles computer scientists. Some say the geeky computer scientist stereotype turns off girls when they're in elementary school. Others argue that few female peers causes girls to follow other academic and career paths. The myth of the isolated computer scientist who has no social interaction could steer women away.

Increasing the number of female computer scientists is crucial, said Leigh Ann Sudol, 33, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate student earning her doctorate in computer science education.

"Otherwise, we're losing a huge percentage of smart people in the country to other interests," said Sudol of Squirrel Hill, who taught high school computer science in Bedford, N.Y., for eight years.

That's not an option in a society that relies on computers, said Brina Goyette, 23, a CMU master's student focusing on robotics.

"Computers are what allow us to do so much of our banking -- use ATMs, go to any branch and get money, make credit cards work," said Goyette, a native of Alberta, Canada, who lives in Squirrel Hill. …